Eric Hoffer, the Dockyard Philosopher
Mass movements seem to be massing up these days, with protesters pulling down statues here and rally-goers pulling off face masks there… and demagogues pulling a fast one everywhere, calling for nationalism or socialism or nativism or iconoclasticism or isolationism (for at least 14 days). It’s this “–ism” versus that “–is-not-ism” with everyone becoming some kind of zealot, extremist, radical, or fanatic.
We’re all in danger of turning into what Eric Hoffer called “true believers.”
Eric Hoffer (1898-1983) was an American social and moral philosopher who never set foot in a classroom – at least not until he was appointed adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964.
Hoffer had a hardscrabble childhood in the Bronx. His German immigrant parents died young. And he hit the road and spent decades as a migrant farm worker, living on Skid Row between harvests and carrying nothing with him but a sack of books and a library card for each town he passed through. Rejected by the Army at the onset of WWII, he found a job as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks where he worked for the next 21 years.
All that time he was studying – and writing – philosophy. Hoffer’s great theme was the relation of the masses of men to the mass movements of mankind. He focused, naturally, on the individual’s relationship to the Imperialism, Communism, and Fascism that had almost destroyed mankind during the 20th century. His opinion was, to put it in 21st century language, “This relationship needs work.”
Hoffer came to public notice with his 1951 best-selling book, The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
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His ideas were met with applause from a wide range of political opinion-makers. The patrician liberal Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called Hoffer “brilliant and original.” Look magazine ran an article about Hoffer titled, “Ike’s Favorite Author.” Berkeley hired Hoffer. LBJ invited him to the White House. Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And Hillary Clinton, while trying to figure out what was going wrong in her campaign against Donald Trump, urged her staff to read The True Believer.
Today, it’s impossible to imagine a philosopher appealing to such a broad political spectrum. In fact, today it’s impossible to imagine having such a broad political spectrum.
Hoffer wouldn’t be part of it anyway… He had no political ideology. Indeed, he had no great metaphysical system of philosophy at all. He lived in the real world. He had a blue-collar approach to being a philosopher. You get your tools – which are looking, listening, and learning – then you do your job, which is thinking.
The results were finely crafted, carefully finished specific works of thought. They’re better shown in operation than explained in abstractions.
Below is a selection of quotes from The True Believer (and note how many of them can be applied to any or all mass movements and each and every of their most ardent supporters):
A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine or promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.
A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.
A mass movement… appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.
Where people live autonomous lives and are not badly off, yet are without abilities or opportunities for creative work or useful action, there is no telling to what desperate and fantastic shifts they might resort in order to give meaning and purpose to their lives.
People who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worth-while purpose in self-advancement… They look on self-interest as something tainted and evil.
There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.
The inordinately selfish are particularly susceptible to frustration… It is the inordinately selfish, therefore, who are likely to be the most persuasive champions of selflessness.
They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society… They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.
Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual… Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden.
The reason that the inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that… [they] crave to dissolve their spoiled, meaningless selves in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking.
The permanent misfits can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement.
The superior individual, whether in politics, literature, science, commerce or industry, plays a large role in shaping a nation, but so do individuals at the other extreme – the failures, misfits, outcasts, criminals, and all those who have lost their footing, or never had one, in the ranks of respectable humanity. The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle.
There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom.
(Aside to Hillary – that’s what was going wrong with your campaign against Donald Trump.)
When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath is passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.
Some people called Eric Hoffer an intellectual. He would always reply by saying he was a longshoreman. Think of him as a sort of stevedore of the mind, loading a supertanker of common sense freighted with wisdom and shipped with brilliance.